Cyber Expert on Israeli Security Agency COVID-19 Tracking: Tigger-Happy Policy

Cyber Expert on Israeli Security Agency COVID-19 Tracking: Tigger-Happy Policy

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Prospect: Routine flights without isolation – within six months

Following the increase in COVID-19 contamination in Israel and the huge number of citizens that were instructed to go into self-isolation basing on the Israeli Security Agency tracking, cyber expert Menny Barzilay said in a special interview to iHLS: “When the tracking system is not accurate, policy consideration play a more considerable role, and might increase dramatically the number of isolated people. As the number of people isolated without necessity increases – the public trust in the system decreases.”

Menny Barzilay, a global cyber expert and keynote speaker, is the CEO of the cyber consultancy company Cytactic, co-CEO of BAR1 security export and HLS company, and also serves as the CTO of the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center (ICRC) at Tel Aviv University.

How do you evaluate the use of the Israeli Security Agency tracking of coronavirus patients?

Barzilay assesses that “the Security Agency’s system is not sufficiently accurate due to its mission to encompass all the citizens. The major dilemma is the balance between health security and privacy. When the system is not enough accurate, as in the case of the Security Agency’s system, the question is whether to prefer accuracy but lose more privacy – it is accuracy and security vs. privacy.”

In fact, the attempt to produce a technological system that identifies people that are in risk of contamination is complex from the operational logic point of view. Massive surveillance can be achieved through cellular tracking or GPS-based mobile applications, which are more precise but cause more privacy infringement.

“The present Security Agency system, similarly to other systems around the world, is based on cellular tracking according to the device’s distance from three antennas, which is not very accurate from the outset. Due to the high level of uncertainty, there are many assumptions to be taken on the way to the decision whether to send someone to self-isolation.”

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He asserts that the policy is the result of two major factors: “First, the status of the curve of patients number – as it grows steeper, the policy becomes trigger-happy and less tolerant in cases of doubt, as it is happening now.

Secondly, the public atmosphere can have influence – politicians are sensitive to public sentiment, and if there would have been extreme protest regarding the Security Agency tracking – this tool would have been used more carefully.”

Barzilay contends that the technological tool is not sufficient – a massive epidemiological testing array with rapid results should be established in order to be able to release people from self-isolation more quickly.

In addition, better public instruction is required as not everyone understands that contamination can also be caused by pressing the elevator switch.

Do you believe that people would stop taking their smartphones when they go out? Barzilay evaluates that “whoever wishes to cheat would do it. For some people the cost of isolation might be so high that they would prefer to cheat.”

In the western world, where privacy concerns play an important role, the installation of tracking applications is voluntary. However, in countries like China, massive surveillance technologies employed include cameras, facial recognition systems, mobile applications, and more. 

Barzilay stresses: “People should acknowledge that it is not easy to flatten the curve, it is impossible to reach the 100% of contaminated people. The goal is to reach most of them and isolate them, and this could have a considerable impact on the curve.”

And finally, what is your forecast for the near future? Barzilay believes that “life is stronger than the coronavirus. Undoubtedly, the world is pressing to return to normal, although the process will still take time. The return to routine flights without isolation before and after would not be later than some six months from today.” 

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